Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands – Copenhagen

Grey snow feels like wet salt: fluid. Walking through it feels unnatural, as if driving a sled or carving paths through dense jungle. It may be late evening, but we are far from cold; warmed from within by the mulled wine, and from without by the lightshow. Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy rips through the air as lasers weave intricate webs across the cold, black sky. We are in Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen.

I had tried to come to Tivoli before, but it was closed. I found a solid week, late enough in the year to have missed Summer; early enough for Hallowe’en not to have started; The Tivoli gates were barred to me. Not this time. This time we would have access to all of the thrills and all of the spills.

And we would make the most of it: I hadn’t realised we would be able to find a meal of any quality somewhere like this. A burger of unclear provenance, or a Pølsevogn, were the best I had expected. Yet we found a full array of dining options, from convenience foods to New Nordic cuisine via pan-Asian noodles and a Danish Brewhouse. We chose the latter, and we were far from disappointed.

There is far more to Copenhagen than its amusements, but my mind struggles to find them. When it does, it recalls art galleries and botanical gardens; shopping streets and inland seas. A world in a city.

In a foreign city, exploring by foot, cyclists can be the enemy. In Copenhagen you might as well join them, because you are never ever going to beat them. Unfortunately I cannot ride a bike. Nor can I speak Danish, especially when being shouted at by a high speed Dane on a bike. We were walking up to the Sankt Jørgens Sø, St. George’s Lake – originally part of the city defences – when it happened.

I was crossing a snow-bound street, mind caught between avoiding cars, remaining in an upright and locked position, and marvelling at the view before me. It really shouldn’t be possible to have such stunning pastoral views in the heart of a vibrant metropolis, but the folk of Nordicaa certainly seem to prioritise such things. Four lakes in a row, joined by bridges, surrounded by paths. They make a wonderful promenade, even as the snow sweeps down from the North, through your bones.

The cyclist had every right to remain on the cycle path, and not be forced out on to the road by some pedestrian off their own path. The problem was that I could not see the path, and I was walking like an oblivious zombie on the route that was rightly theirs. I was roundly shouted at, circumvented and left feeling like a bit of a fool. Not as much of a fool as I would feel outside of the Botanical Gardens.

My partner loves a day spent in gardens. I can take or leave them; I have wiled many a pleasant hour in the gardens of Nordicaa, but they are not my favourite way to spend the day. This day, we had decided to visit them. This day we found the city snow bound. This day the gardens were closed.

I’m not sure why we were surprised. Perhaps we thought that they would all be indoor affairs, with snow-capped glass houses full of tropical plants and swirls of fluttering butterflies. Instead we were greeted with a no entry sign and a sad trudge back through the snow-laden streets of Nørreport.

The streets were snow-bound, except for one thin, dry path, about half a metre wide, running along each and every pavement of the city. Only cities which experience such weather with a metronomic frequency can consider such infrastructure. In the UK, snow is a form of paralysis, cured only by salt and panic. The further south you go, the greater the panic, and the more days we work from home.

With that we ducked for cover in to the National Gallery (Statens Museum for Kunst, SMK), and fell out of our overcoats. We dripped on the floor and huddled under hand driers, shivering and lost.

Any gallery as good as SMK is a world of wonders; but after the storm-lashed morning, we were all the more glad of it. One of my favourite artists is a Dane: Vilhelm Hammershøi. He is best known for his bleak interiors, the chimney of the typically Scandinavian hearth, and the back of his wife’s neck. I love his buildings. I love his buildings because I can go to them, I can see them, and I can feel them. Some of the rooms he painted, in their stark monochrome melancholia are still there, but almost all of his buildings are. From the offices of the Danish Asiatic company on Strandgade, and the side of Christiansborg Slot, both in Copenhagen, to the back side of the National Gallery in London. Standing with these majestic buildings, unchanged with time and tide, brings Hammershøi vividly back to life.

This ancient city is best seen from the water; canals meander softly around the myriad islands, which comprise Copenhagen; the busy heart of the city roars through daily grind overhead while we watch eras pass. Christian VI’s ancient Brewhouse, the gleaming, bleedingly modern Black Diamond (The Royal Library) and dragons twisting high above the stock exchange Borse: the many, varied eras of Danish expansion and supremacy ebb and flow above, much like the languid waters themselves.

A bridge of marble leads to the island. Large gate towers guard the entrance of the square beyond. A bell tower soars high above, a Verdigris flag blowing in a gentle sea breeze. A colonnade guides to the palace itself. On through the main building and the workings of government are all around and about. A parquet floor of stone guides you out to the outside world, walks you past the entrances of state, and the offices of the ministers. This is Borgen: an island of government, history, ceremony.

Snow lies thick on the ground as you enter the square. The twisting, turning Strøget has led you here from the Town Hall. Your bearings were lost a kilometre ago, as the swirl of the snow and the sound of the laughter baffle your senses. Beyond here lies Højbro Plads, and a Christmas market, where a sausage and several cups of hot, sweet Gløgg have your name inscribed in large, famished letters.

You tower high above the city, spiralling up like the edge of a snail’s shell. The Church of Our Saviour looks down upon the canal, looks down upon apartment blocks, looks down upon Christiania. Free city, within a city which feels very free already. You recoiled like a child at a pile of hash, displayed openly in a street. A few feet away the familiar thrum of noise. Less free, but more comfortable.